No one knows what the fate of high school spring sports will be during this unprecedented time. Right now, both Minnesota and Wisconsin have issued “stay at home” orders and schools are closed until the end of April. As a result, spring sports would not be able to start until the beginning of May at the earliest.

Let’s assume that will be the case and spring sports will indeed be played. Perhaps the two sports that face the largest obstacles in trying to play a condensed season would be baseball and softball. It is the general consensus that they would take the longest of the spring sports to get ready to play. Players would need time to get their arms in shape, especially pitchers, otherwise it risks injury.

In both states, softball playoffs start the third week of May. If it takes two weeks to get teams ready, that leaves less than a week for games before playoffs are supposed to start. Even if you shorten the prep time to one week, that only gives them 7-10 days. Even with doubleheaders, teams would only be able to play perhaps 6-10 games in that period.

Baseball has an advantage over softball with the current start date as playoffs in both Wisconsin and Minnesota are scheduled to begin the last week in May or the first week of June. That week’s difference is huge, but there is one problem that is unique to baseball: pitch counts.

Softball has the advantage in that teams can more easily play doubleheaders because of the pitching rules and the length of games. It does not have pitch counts and, in general, does not use as many pitchers due to the less stressful arm motion.

If there is a spring sports season, senior Avery O'Neil will be a leader in the circle for the Ellsworth Panthers. File photo
If there is a spring sports season, senior Avery O'Neil will be a leader in the circle for the Ellsworth Panthers. File photo

Pitch count regulations were instituted in both states starting the spring of 2017 and coaches have adjusted the past few seasons. Minnesota and Wisconsin were just the latest in a national trend of trying to protect the health of student-athletes as overuse injuries started to skyrocket in younger and younger players.

In general, pitch count regulations resulted in teams needing more pitchers, which especially impacted smaller schools. In order for teams to play as many games as possible before the playoffs this May, that demand will be even greater with two or three doubleheaders a week. The health and injury risk to athletes will have to be the top priority when the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL), Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) and their respective conferences design schedules.

In Minnesota, varsity pitchers can throw a maximum of 105 pitches per game, with the allowance that a pitcher can finish whatever batter they are facing when they hit that mark. If a pitcher throws 76 pitches or more in a game, they are mandated to rest the next three calendar days. Pitchers who throw 1-30 pitches do not need a day of rest, 31-50 requires one day and 51-75 requires two days. If they throw two days in a row, at least one day of rest is required no matter how many pitches were thrown. The max is bumped up to 115 for playoffs. Warmup and bullpen pitches do not count in this number, but do contribute to the injury risk faced by the athletes.

In Wisconsin, the max is 100 pitches and three days rest is required when throwing 76-100 pitches. Like Minnesota, 1-30 pitches does not require a day of rest, 31-49 means one day and 50-75 is two days. The counts in Minnesota are further decreased for lower levels of play like junior varsity, B-squads and freshmen while in Wisconsin the delineation is between high school and middle school.

In order to play a doubleheader, even if shortened to two four-or-five-inning games, teams will probably need 4-5 pitchers available. If there is one day of rest between doubleheaders for three to four a week, most teams will need almost their entire teams to be available to pitch or will have to bring up pitchers from lower levels, who are also subject to pitch count restrictions. Otherwise, conferences will be forced to play less games than desired.

No matter what the situation, coaches and athletic directors will face a logistical nightmare if the spring sports season is not extended further into the summer. The health of the athletes must be the number one priority even at the cost of games or an ideal schedule. Both the MSHSL and WIAA should consider extending the seasons just for the health of athletes across all sports. Allow them to train properly, get their bodies into game shape and have a healthy season, however it may be.